For smaller communities with limited resources and staff capacity, it can be especially challenging to address an issue as complex as housing in a meaningful way. But three local governments in ICMA’s Economic Mobility and Opportunity Cohort are taking tangible steps to support their residents, particularly those with limited incomes, in attaining safe, stable housing options.
Tarboro, North Carolina
Establishing an Evidence Base for Next Steps
The town of Tarboro was within the region of North Carolina impacted by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, with flooding displacing many town and county residents. “We had FEMA putting people up in hotels because there was zero rental housing, zero houses to buy, nothing,” recalled Tarboro planning director Catherine Grimm, “So it was close to a year that we had people living in hotels because there was literally nowhere else to go. It really highlighted the need across all segments of the housing market for us.”
Concerns about the town’s housing supply existed before the hurricane and have only mounted since. “But we couldn’t explain to anyone in detail what that actually meant; it was just nebulous,” she said.
The town has leveraged available tools and resources to try and chip away at the situation. Many of these functions reside within the town’s planning department, including funding from community development block grants and other sources. The town also updated its zoning map and made an intentional effort to expand where multi-family housing is allowed and encourage density in redevelopment.
Meanwhile, the potential for a significant development project three miles out of town, and another $3 million in downtown property turnover in just the last year, suggested an increasing need for more market-rate housing. But staff were constrained in their ability to discuss with prospective developers just what types and how much the town could and should accommodate. “Is there a need for apartments? Would people here even like a townhouse or condo—would that be aesthetically acceptable? Do they need a garage?” were some of the questions they couldn’t answer without data.
Further complicating the picture were the results of the 2020 Census, which Tarboro believes relied too heavily on extrapolation and resulted in an undercount of their population. While the official Census numbers suggest Tarboro’s population is declining, the town’s municipal utility data seem to indicate otherwise, and leadership is considering next steps after an initial appeal was declined.
Tarboro leveraged the small grant opportunity provided as part of the EMO Cohort to commission a housing study, which it felt was needed to reconcile all of this information and provide a foundation for the town in setting priorities and next steps. And even relying on the lower Census population figures, the study was able to quantify in detail the perceived housing shortage.
The data paint a more nuanced picture of housing affordability across the income spectrum, highlighting that thousands of households are paying significant shares—often more than 50 percent—of their incomes toward housing costs. And it helped illustrate the cost burden on owner-occupied homes as well as renters, prompting thoughts about additional complications and possible interventions given the high costs of taxes, insurance, and utility bills for older homes that may have been inherited but were far behind on maintenance.
Importantly, the study enables a better understanding of what workforce or affordable housing means in Tarboro. It pulled together data on median home prices and household incomes, as well as the most common occupations and associated wages. Grimm said that having all of that information laid out together was extremely helpful in contextualizing for Tarboro what is known to be a national issue. “It highlights that our local employers’ wages are insufficient for citizens to be able to buy a house or to rent decent housing,” she said.
Recognizing Needs and Roles for Municipal Action
Meadville is home to around 13,000 residents, one of few non-rural areas in Crawford County in northwest Pennsylvania. A majority of its current council ran on a platform of improving access to safe, stable, affordable housing. But there has been debate amongst community and regional stakeholders as to what the city’s precise role should be in advancing that priority.
Renna Wrubleski, Meadville’s director of community development, agreed that as a small local government they value their county and local partners, including their redevelopment authority, playing an active role in planning for and supplying housing. She sees an opportunity for the city to complement those roles by helping to set objectives and direction, and to foster an ecosystem of policies and programs that help housing developments thrive (much like incentive programs are a part of economic development).
She also likened the state of housing in Meadville to a public safety issue. “As a local government, we have a responsibility to provide public safety. Well, where do we draw the lines on where public safety begins and ends? Is it just at police and fire? Do we expand that into making sure that the homes that are in our community are safe for the people who are living in them?” She noted that of their residents, “Sixty-three percent are renters who do not have direct control over the properties they are living in. They’re dependent on someone else to ensure that safety.”
The city had been hearing complaints from renters, including those in public housing units, about a lack of responsiveness from their landlords. Issues ranged from insufficient heating and cooling to bed bugs and mold to basic repairs of elevators or appliances. While not practical for the city to actively mediate landlord-tenant issues, it realized that a more proactive approach to rental inspections could help ease some of the burden on renters. In 2022, its council authorized a new rental inspection program, requiring all rental properties to register with the city and undergo an inspection every two years rather than just in cases of emergencies.
A next step, supported through ICMA’s grant, was development of a housing action plan. Like Tarboro, leadership aimed to get a handle on housing data and conditions in Meadville, but they also wanted to use the process to explore the possible roles the city could play going forward in coordination with other housing stakeholders in the region.
Staff leveraged their local knowledge in making intentional efforts to engage a broad range of perspectives in the “discovery” phase of the planning process. This included both one-on-one meetings and surveys of key stakeholder groups such as boards and commissions, community anchor institutions, regional housing and planning agencies, nonprofits, realtors, and landlords. To reach residents, they went to laundromats, coffee shops, and other businesses and community gathering spaces. They made special efforts to connect with their renter population at neighborhood meetings and a tenants-rights workshop, recognizing that those voices were often underrepresented through traditional outreach channels.
This process helped to gather information but also to build trust and a foundation for future collaboration. Meadville city planner Peter Grella pointed out a number of semantic differences aimed to signal a different, action-oriented approach to planning in Meadville. “We’re not calling things roundtables; we’re calling them design teams. We’re not calling it a steering committee; we’re calling it a partnership,” he cited as examples. They have been trying to uphold a sense of mutual accountability, asking partners to join them in committing to specific actions.
“And that makes things a bit uncomfortable, because that accountability is difficult,” Grella said. “Being able to demand that commitment, get that commitment, and return to that commitment produces friction, especially when everybody who is sitting at the table really does have their own missions and priorities that they deal with, even if our greater goal is all the same.” But, he and the team are hopeful the end result will lead to something greater than any of the individual actors have been able to produce so far.
Morgan Hill, California
Elevating a Shared Understanding of Affordable Housing
Morgan Hill is a generally affluent city of around 45,000 located at the southern tip of California’s Silicon Valley. Like other parts of the region, it is known as a home to technology and other manufacturers, as well as wineries and natural amenities. At first blush this might have been a surprising choice for inclusion in an economic mobility initiative. Edith Ramirez, assistant city manager for development services, is aware of that, noting that a typical house in her community costs around a million dollars.
But Morgan Hill is going through a growth spurt, Ramirez observed. Part of that is due to shifts in the region as people move further south of Silicon Valley in search of lower-priced housing, yet still commute through Morgan Hill to jobs further north. Within the city, she said, “The housing stock has been overwhelmingly single-family with only about 5% rental product, which skews to certain demographics.” But the need is real, she noted, as 5,600 families are considered low income and 28% of all residents are on some form of public assistance.
Like their peers, the city is using planning and policy tools to boost the supply and quality of more affordable housing across the city. And more recently, they are using a blend of data and personal perspectives to elevate the conversation around affordability and who makes up the community in Morgan Hill.
Part of this process is increasing their understanding and supporting the needs of their lower-income residents. Staff have been collaborating with the school district and hosting dinners in low-income apartment complexes to create opportunities for conversation in a friendlier setting, in addition to maintaining a presence at community events and celebrations. They also convene monthly meetings with local service providers to share information and triage acute housing challenges to prevent residents from falling through cracks in the system.
And the team has pored over data about a wide range of issues impacting economic mobility of residents. “You need data to tell people that 12% of our children are considered unhoused because of their living conditions,” said Ramirez.
But data require analysis and interpretation, she cautioned, and often multiple data sources are needed to make sense of root causes. They’ve seen data, for example, that suggest that Spanish-speaking residents do not have a trusted organization they can turn to. “If people do not trust the government, how good can the data be?” Undocumented residents, housing director Rebecca Garcia adds, are especially hard to capture in the data.
A parallel strategy is educating the broader population—even local leadership—about what “affordable housing” looks like and means to the Morgan Hill community. “The reality is that what makes this community amazing and clean and beautiful is everybody that is working in the background,” Ramirez says—everyone from retail and hospitality service workers to cops, firefighters, nurses, and teachers, all of whom could qualify for affordable housing.
Her team is working to advance a campaign, including video testimonials, on who affordable housing is for. Garcia points out, “Residents often do not realize they themselves are eligible for affordable housing. There are so many myths and so much false information that it takes an ongoing intentional effort to change the narrative with facts and truth.”
Housing coordinator Christie Thomas underscored the power of storytelling. She described a recent presentation where she was able to identify familiar faces, like the local librarian, as residents of affordable housing, and she shared real examples of how fragile the housing situation is for some Morgan Hill families. Many affordable housing opponents approached her with follow-up questions, saying “‘We need to get this information out to the community; we need to tell the stories about our own community members,’” she recalled. “Once we give them that knowledge, it does change the way they think about housing.”
Ramirez says it’s been a challenging conversation, but “the concept of creating a community where people can live where they work is a paradigm that we’re working toward.”
Beyond the specific strategies already described, the three communities’ experiences yielded additional recommendations for other smaller places looking to address local housing challenges.
Advocate for what you identify as necessary steps and processes.
For Tarboro, it was important that their study be conducted externally, but part of the challenge was aligning a budget and timeline with potential consultants. They’ve had similar challenges in scaling procurements for housing programming as well, with a lot of smaller consultants having been absorbed by larger engineering firms that don’t typically bid on projects of this scale. It took a bit more proactive outreach to specific firms to convince them to consider the opportunity. But in the end, they were able to negotiate an affordable basic price and menu of a la carte options—prioritizing an in-person presentation of the results so the community and its leadership would be able to hear directly from experts offering unbiased, fresh perspectives.
In Meadville, it was time to push from planning and waiting to action. “There is still some skepticism about the city’s ability to do this work, recognizing capacity issues from both a staffing point and a budgetary perspective,” said Wrubleski. While some argue, “‘Just stick to your basic things that you absolutely have to do and don’t spend money on these other ancillary things.’ At some point, we have to do something.”
Celebrate small wins.
Morgan Hill’s housing team quickly pointed to the latest individuals its members had helped to place in stable housing situations—in one recent case, a person that had been unhoused for 15 years, whose number finally came up but needed assistance in getting to the DMV to obtain necessary identification.
“We’re a small city, so sometimes it may look like ‘Hey, we’re just doing a safe park that can only house eight families.’ But we can make a huge difference in those families’ lives and keep it going,” said Thomas, “And the program just ends up growing itself.”
In Meadville, as staff coordinated outreach around their housing study, they were excited to see an uptick in community feedback. While a couple hundred responses to a community survey might not be huge relative to their overall population, Wrubleski noted, it was significantly higher than responses to recent surveys on other topics. “We saw that as a step in the right direction.”
Keep humanity at the heart of the work.
For staff, especially those directly engaging with lower-income residents facing most extreme housing challenges, this work can be especially taxing.
“This work requires one to go out on a limb, be bold and brave, and speak on behalf of the community that is too busy working three jobs to tell their stories.” Localize the faces as you do your campaign, suggests Garcia. “Doing this work is hard and often unpopular so I stay grounded in what I know to be the right thing to do, not for me but for the mission. We all fail if we don’t figure out the housing shortage.”
New, Reduced Membership Dues
A new, reduced dues rate is available for CAOs/ACAOs, along with additional discounts for those in smaller communities, has been implemented. Learn more and be sure to join or renew today!